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Border & Immigration

Resurgent maquiladoras are making Tijuana a boom town all over again

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Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Trucks line up in Tijuana waiting to cross the border at Otay Mesa in this undated photo.

Factors from supply chain disruptions to changes in consumer buying habits and tariff loopholes are fueling a surge in demand for warehouse space.

Tijuana’s maquiladora industry is in the midst of a new roaring ‘20s.

“This is undoubtedly the most exciting and the most dynamic time period we’ve had in the maquiladora industry for decades,” said Ernesto Bravo, who works for Tecma, a company that helps foreign businesses set up operations in Mexico.

The number of people who work in Tijuana’s factories and warehouses, and the total square footage devoted to those facilities are both at all-time highs, Bravo added.

Currently, there are roughly 270,000 maquiladora employees in Tijuana – which is nearly equivalent to the city of Chula Vista’s population. All told, maquiladora operations account for 70 million square feet of industrial space.

“If you look at all of the data points, whether they be rent rates, number of employees, production floor space, wages as well, all of these are in the best condition that they’ve ever been,” Bravo said.

What’s behind this boom?

A lot of it can be attributed to the same factors that have fueled the industry since the 1970s – its proximity to the United States along with relatively cheap labor, land and regulatory costs.

But it’s also being driven by COVID-era disruptions in the global supply chain and changes in consumer shopping habits. Then there’s a little-known section of the U.S. tariff code.

Section 321

Section 321 of the tariff code allows companies to avoid paying tariffs on certain imports. To qualify, the imports need to be valued at less than $800 and be sent directly to individual customers instead of in bulk.

This loophole has been around since the 1930s. But it’s just recently become popular thanks to presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In 2016, the Obama administration increased the limit on Section 321 imports from $200 to $800. Two years later, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on goods imported from China and other parts of the world.

The result of these actions has been a surge in warehouses known as fulfillment centers throughout the southern border.

One of the most recent arrivals to the area is ShipMonk, a Florida-based company that provides shipping and fulfillment services to e-commerce companies.

ShipMonk announced an expansion into Tecate in October 2021. Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Sides says Section 321 was a major consideration behind the expansion.

“The value-add of the program is pretty significant for our clients, who are often facing serious challenges resulting from the current tariff environment and supply chain disruptions from the pandemic,” Sides said.

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Matthew Bowler / KPBS
The vacancy rate for industrial property in Tijuana is less than 1%. This sign in this undated photo advertises warehouse space in an industrial park about a half-hour south of the border.

Pandemic proof

U.S. Customs and Border Protection tracks the number of international mail shipments with advanced electronic data entering the country.

While total shipments decreased by 19% between 2019 and 2020, the number of shipments using Section 321 increased by 28%, according to CBP data.

That growth isn’t slowing down.

Goods shipped via Section 321 totaled $768 million in fiscal year 2020. That figure was already $662 million just three quarters into the 2021 fiscal year, data shows.

The result is a mad rush to build more Tijuana warehouse space, said Adriana Eguia, a vice president for Vesta, one of the biggest industrial developers in the region.

“They want ten times the amount of space they have now,” she said. “And we know it’s probably going to grow more.”

Eguia added that the growth comes, in part, from changes in how people shop.

“They are buying things from home,” she said. “You need a structure for that to happen, that’s why Tijuana has changed a lot in terms of having all of these fulfillment centers. Because of the demand.”

Supply chain and work shortages

As the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, companies looked to Mexico as a way to minimize risk.

Companies who previously thought they could save money by moving manufacturing away from North America, are now seeing that supply chain disruptions cancel out those savings, said Mauricio Tortolero, a partner with the TP Legal firm in Tijuana who specializes in real estate.

One of his clients set up a manufacturing facility in South America just before the pandemic began. They’d save costs because labor there was cheaper than in Mexico and they could simply ship their product to the U.S.

“When the COVID situation started, that product wasn’t able to arrive here to Mexico or the U.S. on time,” Tortolero said. “So, all of their operation got delayed and it was a big problem for the company. So now they see that they cannot set up all the way in South America even though they have certain benefits.”

Resurgent maquiladoras are making Tijuana a boom town all over again

For companies used to waiting three to four weeks for their goods to cross the Pacific only to be held up at ports along the West Coast, a three- to four-hour wait at the Otay Mesa border crossing doesn’t seem all that bad, Tortolero added.

For ShipMonk, Tecate offers an opportunity to escape the pandemic-era supply chain nightmare.

​​”Anytime you can reduce the number of actors in a chain, it will typically improve efficiencies for the given client,” Sides says. “In this case, we can manage a client's imported goods all the way from the dock, straight through to each of their customers' front doors.”

The company is so happy with the move to Tecate, that they are looking to expand in Mexico and even open a fulfillment center in Canada to be, “the only bi-coastal 321 offering,” he added.

Another draw to Tijuana, this one for California-based companies, is a growing workforce.

Both Tortolero and Bravo said their clients who are based in California say the main reason for considering a move to Mexico is because of how difficult it has been for them to hire workers.

Mexico’s average age is 29, nearly a decade younger than the U.S.’s average age of 38, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And workers in Mexico are more willing to do jobs Americans would rather not.

“One of the issues that many of our clients tell us that they are facing in the U.S. is that they are not able to find workers,” Bravo said. “Even if they increase wages there are just not enough people who want to do that job or are interested.”

Obstacles to growth

Experts who follow Tijuana’s maquiladora industry say growth is only limited by the region’s ability to keep up.

In Tijuana, industrial real estate makes up less than one-half of 1% of the city’s total, Eguia said.

Demand for warehouse space is so high that developers lease industrial parks before they even finish construction. And land in Tijuana is so hard to come by that companies have started moving to Tecate, Mexicali and Ensenada.

Resurgent maquiladoras are making Tijuana a boom town all over again

Speaker 1: (00:00)

While the pandemic has ravaged much of the cross border economy. Theas Mara industry has flourished KBB S border reporter. Gustavo tells us what's behind this resurgence.

Speaker 2: (00:21)

This is the of Tijuana is booming. Maquila Dora industry, the daily thunder from thousands of cargo trucks, shipping goods into the us through the OTA Mesa border crossing. Those trucks carry everything from Topo, Chico Hardell to Toyota Tacomas assembled just outside TECA. Each one is a sign of what's shaping up to be a new roaring twenties for Tuas maquila dos, which are manufacturing and warehouse facilities along the Southern

Speaker 3: (00:45)

Border. Well, this is undoubtedly the most exciting and the most dynamic, uh, time period we've had in the maquila industry for decades.

Speaker 2: (00:55)

This is he Ernesto Bravo. He works for Tema, a company that helps foreign businesses move to Mexico, and they've been doing it since the 1980s. So that makes Rao our resident historian for the bustling border towns. Maquila Dora industry.

Speaker 3: (01:08)

The, the industry was born really in the seventies. It grew significantly in the eighties. Two thousands was a bit of a challenging period, uh, with China coming into the WTO, the world trade organization and enjoying certain benefits in terms of international trade. Um, a lot of manufacturers actually migrated to China, but over

Speaker 2: (01:27)

The last few years, the companies that left they're coming back,

Speaker 3: (01:32)

We have seen reverse migration. If you wanna say from Asia to Mexico, as companies realize that they need to be closer to their clients. Uh, and with the us being the number one market in the world for everything virtually, you want to be the, the closest place you can be.

Speaker 2: (01:50)

The pandemic made it abundantly clear that saving money by shifting manufacturing away from north America is a bad bet. Mauricio Torro heads, the real estate division at the TP legal law firm in Tiana. He witnessed firsthand what happened to businesses that expand supply chains before the pandemic. One of his clients thought they could save money by opening a manufacturing facility in south America. But

Speaker 4: (02:12)

When the COVID situation started that product wasn't able to come or to arrive here in Mexico or in, in the us in time. So all their operation get get delayed, and it was a big problem for the company.

Speaker 2: (02:26)

The fastest growing sector of Tianas maquila auto industry is fulfillment centers. These are essentially repackaging and shipping warehouses that use a little known section of the us tariff code to avoid paying fees on certain imports. It's called section 3 21, and it allows companies to avoid fees as long as they ship items worth 800, hundred dollars or less directly to customers. So instead of shipping items in bulk to the us companies set up fulfillment centers, just south of the border, that's why we're in the middle of a fulfillment center building boom in Tijuana, GUI works for Veta. One of the biggest industrial developers in the region, she says compared to just a year ago, the growth has been

Speaker 5: (03:06)

10 times. Yeah, 10 times, at least 10 times. And we know that probably is gonna grow more

Speaker 2: (03:13)

Experts who follow Tijuana maquila industry are bullish on the market. Demand is high and the underlying conditions behind the boom don't seem to be going away

Speaker 4: (03:22)

Unless there is a change or unless there is something that catastrophic happens. I think that we will continue to see growth,

Speaker 2: (03:31)

But there's at least one big potential roadblock. And that's Tijuana infrastructure, businesses need stable sources of water and power to run warehouses. They need roads to transport goods across the border, and they need a reliable transit system for their employees to get to work on time. Historically, Tijuana has not invested in infrastructure and that could come back to haunt the city. What,

Speaker 5: (03:54)

What needs to happen now is a lot of will from, uh, governments and business people to put on, uh, investment into the infrastructures of the city, because see if we keep on growing and there's no more roads and, and security and lightning and everything that the city needs in order for keep on the growth, it probably it's gonna collapse,

Speaker 2: (04:14)

But for now expect the trucks to keep on rolling at O time makes

Speaker 1: (04:20)

For more on the story and the resurgence of maces in Tijuana. We're joined now by K PS, investigative border reporter Gustavo, Hey

Speaker 6: (04:27)

Gustavo, Hey Christina, how's it going?

Speaker 1: (04:30)

So before we dive into why Tijuana seeing a resurgence in maces, which as you say are manufacturing and warehousing facilities along the border. Give us a little background. When did we last see maquila us last flourish and why, and when did they start to leave Mexico?

Speaker 6: (04:45)

Well, so maquila have been a cornerstone of, uh, Tiana economy for decades, right? They, they produced cars, electronics, even medical devices, actually a fair amount of the ventilators that kept people alive during the early days of the pandemic came from, uh, Malo in ti and the industry took a little bit of a hit in the two thousands around the time China came into the world trade organization and received a certain benefits in terms of international trade. At the time China had significantly lower labor cost in Mexico, but over the last couple years, labor cost over there have more or less equals to those in Mexico. And companies are seeing that cost savings just aren't worth dealing with the, uh, supply chain issues.

Speaker 1: (05:31)

And I know you've noted that the pandemic also has put an additional strain on supply chain issues. And so we're seeing more companies actually return to Mexico. What do we know of what companies are actually coming back and how can we this impact us consumers?

Speaker 6: (05:44)

Well, I can't really give you names of specific companies that have moved. They're they're all really secretive about it. Uh, almost to the point of being paranoid, particularly American companies. They don't want the bad publicity for being in Mexico. Uh, but I can tell you a lot of the companies that are moving to Tijuana, aren't your typical household names. They're smaller companies that subcontract or do work for some of the Walmarts or targets of the world and from a supply chain standpoint, I mean, that that's Tijuana's biggest advantage right now, the location, right? We like to complain about waiting a few hours to cross the border, but it's nothing compared to waiting weeks to cross the Pacific only to get stuck in a bottleneck at the port of Los Angeles.

Speaker 1: (06:24)

You say fulfillment centers are by far the fastest growing industry there. Can you say more about why that is and how companies are using section 3 21 of the us tariff code?

Speaker 6: (06:35)

Yeah. So just to explain section 3 21 is a, a part of a tariff code that companies can use to avoid paying fees on importing goods. The way it works is if you ship items worth $800 or less and mail them directly to individual customers in the us, you don't have to pay tariffs on it. Let's use laptops. As an example, companies, shipping crates of laptops to the us have to pay a tariff instead they can ship them in bulk to a fulfillment center in Tijuana. The laptops will be repackaged into smaller boxes, get slapped with a shipping label that has your name and address on it. Then they'll be loaded into trucks and cross the border without having to pay any fees. Now, the most interesting thing I think about section 3 21 is that it's really, it's been around since the 1930s, but has just recently become popular. And that's because of the actions of former presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, eh, Obama, and around 2016, increased the limit on section 3 21 goods from $200 to $800. This was a way to help, uh, e-commerce companies and Trump of course raised tariffs on China. So both of those actions, right? Raising the cap and increasing the number of tariffs, have both incentivized companies to take advantage of section 3 21. How

Speaker 1: (07:53)

Is the return of a booming Mata industry impacting Mexican workers? Are there enough workers to, to fill the need? And how do wages at these jobs compare to other available

Speaker 6: (08:03)

Work? Well, you mentioned the workforce. So that's actually a huge draw for companies. I mean Mexico's average age is 28 compared to about 39 in the us. And Mexico's workforce is projected to grow in the next decade. And now Mexico in terms of wages, right Mexico ago has a weird minimum wage system. It's one wage at the border and another wage in the interior of the country, along the border, it's about 260 pesos a day, or just over $12. And maquilas tend to pay a lot more than that. Now, of course, $12 a day sounds awful to our American listeners, but it's an upgrade to what was at the border. And it's a lot more than what people are making at the Southern states of Mexico.

Speaker 1: (08:46)

If this rate of expansion continues, how could the Kwana and the border economy change over the next few years?

Speaker 6: (08:53)

See, well, one of the things I'm interested in reporting on and just keeping an eye on is the presence and the growth of the tech industry in Tijuana. Uh, the city has several vocational training schools and they produce way more software engineers and coders than San Diego does. Of course coding. Is it own language, right? So it doesn't matter if you're learning it in the us or Mexico. It it's the same thing. And companies are starting to take, no, I've

Speaker 1: (09:15)

Been speaking with Gustavo Salli KBS, investigative border reporter. Thank you so much.

Speaker 6: (09:20)

Well, thank you, Christina.

For the industry to continue to grow, Tijuana is going to have to invest in infrastructure. Businesses need a reliable source of water, electricity to operate. They need reliable roads and transit systems to ensure employees can get to work.

But Tijuana remains largely underdeveloped in those areas.

“Probably the limit would be the limit of how cities are structured,” Eguia said. “What needs to happen now is a lot of will from governments and business people to invest in infrastructure of the cities. Because if we keep on growing and there are no more roads or security or lighting and everything the city needs for growth, it’s probably going to collapse.”